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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Written By: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver Directed By: Matt Reeves

The Short Version

The CGI apes are back for a second round of reboot, and they’ve brought their “A” game.

Make no mistake: this is their movie, and that’s the way it should be.

The narrative’s solid, the effects are good, and all the pieces fit together well.

But… this isn’t exactly the feel good movie of the year.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is good, and worth seeing… but maybe only once.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

LIME GOUDA.

It’s good, but it’s easy to overdo and doesn’t invite regular revisits.


Pairs Well With...

BEAUGOLAIS NOUVEAU.

It’s good, but you don’t keep it for posterity.

“If we go to war, we could lose all we've built.”


Some movies are so good that they just beg to be watched and enjoyed over and over again…

…and then there are movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Don’t get me wrong; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a good movie.  Indeed, I am very glad to have seen it at a theatre on a large format screen, and I am happy to stand and applaud it for taking what traditional Hollywood would call some major risks for the sake of staying true to the story and presenting the best possible narrative.  In terms of quality, this is a very well made flick all around, and I have very few technical complaints.

With that said, I think it will be many years before I decide to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes again, if ever. 

Even good stuff can leave a lousy aftertaste.

The movie picks up ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and for those who missed that film’s end credits outline of how smarter apes led to a massive die off of humans, this one’s opening credits are kind enough to outline the effects of the pandemic.  Civilization has collapsed, the majority of humanity is dead, and nature is already starting to reclaim the urban landscape.  Meanwhile, the apes who started it all under the guidance of “Chimp Zero,” Caesar (Andy Serkis, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), are thriving in the sophisticated community they’ve built on Mount Tamalpais.  Their existence is idyllic, and Caesar continues to enjoy the respect and support of his fellow apes.

And then, for the first time in years, a small band of humans appear.  Needless to say, the first thing they do is shoot and kill a young ape.  Caesar shows mercy and allows them to flee back to what’s left of San Francisco, but now, the primates have met, and the humans won’t agree to Caesar’s truce giving them one side of the Golden Gate Bridge and apes the other.  Turns out that San Francisco’s almost out of power, and the only hope of keeping the lights on lies with a dam near the base of Mount Tamalpais…

Elements of each society are willing to find common ground and try to get along, but others are distrustful and actively plan for war.  Will peace and sensibility prevail, or will there be blood?

Let’s face it, folks: that was a loaded question, and therein lies my primary issue with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

But first, the good stuff.

Whenever I see a movie with a title highlighting a group of aliens, a society of robots, or really any community of non-human characters, I walk in already set up for some small amount of disappointment.  Why?  Because I know, inevitably, that humans will get in the way and hog most of the camera time.  It happened when I went to see Aliens take on Predators; it happened when I went to see giant transforming robots.  Traditional Hollywood just doesn’t want to believe that I or you or anyone else wants to see a movie that doesn’t feature humans as the main characters.

So imagine my delight when not just the first scene, but the first several scenes feature no humans whatsoever.  Instead, they focus on the community of apes, only a few of whom possess the power of human-style speech, which further means that the audience has to actively watch the screen and read the subtitles as the apes communicate via sign language.

It’s a brave choice, it’s the right choice, and it’s a choice that the creative team doesn’t give up on after that first amazing foray.  The humans remain important, but overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is really about the apes, and that is what I and, I think, most of the rest of the audience, paid to see.  And with the screen story locked in the apeward direction, the filmmakers do not compromise on that vision.

They can do this because the effects crew is up to the task of not only keeping the CGI apes from looking embarrassing (even when they talk), but indeed, making them look good, even when there are real people in the same frame.  Look closely enough and you can still they’re CGI, but there’s never any incentive to look that closely.  They’re not cartoonish, they’re not video game creatures; they’re simply believable, and that’s anything but simple.  It also helps that motion cap master Andy Serkis is once again at the top of his game in the role of Caesar, who remains the film’s most compelling character.

The humans, meanwhile, play out as actual humans, which is an improvement over the flat disappointments of the previous film, and none of them (outside of a brief, well-placed flashback) are played by James Franco, which is even better.  Jason Clarke (Public Enemies) and Keri Russell (Mission: Impossible III) are solid and sympathetic human leads, and while some may consider an actor with the talent of Gary Oldman (Robocop) underutilized in the supporting role of the human community leader, objectively, what he brings to the screen is just exactly right.

So with all of this good stuff and more going for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, what’s my problem with the film?

Let’s face it: we all know what the larger picture is here (a planet run by apes; go figure), and with that in mind, there’s only one place this narrative can go when push comes to shove.  The writers know that, and, as noted, they’ve crafted a script that approaches things exactly as they need to be approached.  The results are good… but they don’t feel good.

Throughout the film, the forces of sense and civilization are set against the forces of bigotry and fear, and if the apes are ever going to take over this planet and turn humans into an enslaved extreme minority, whatever our major characters’ wishes may be, diplomacy can’t exactly be expected to win, can it?  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes presents the best aspects of civilization and then allows them to be methodically ground to dust by violent fear.  Is it realistic?  Sadly, yes, and that’s my problem.  If I want to see the forces of bigotry, hatred, and fear win the day, I can go turn on the news and have a fix in less than sixty seconds.  The news is not entertaining, and it’s not what I go to movies for.  I go to movies to escape.  A movie that makes me hate humanity (as represented by both “real” humans and human-analog apes in this story) is not entertaining, and it’s not the escape I’m looking for.  I can’t even say that it gave me a lot to think about afterward; if anything, this story is as simple as it gets, and again, we all see it every day in the news.  Maybe you’re one of those people who considers that a hallmark of a great film; if you are, more power to you.  Enjoy.  But for me… I just don’t like feeling lousy about the world when I leave the theatre.

Bottom line, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a good movie, but the end results don’t feel good.  I’m glad I saw it once, and I applaud the lengths to which the filmmakers go to stay true to the narrative, but I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to ever see this flick again.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2014


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